New Penguin Book of Welsh Short Stories

Richards, Alun ed.

Here we can find twenty-eight stories by twenty-eight authors sourced from both of the literary languages of Wales.

The anthology should be considered as an addition to rather than a substitute for the original Penguin Book of Welsh Short Stories, which was based around an older generation of writers. Only one story is carried over into this more recent volume. The Penguin short story collections of this type represent a continuation of a great tradition of accessible literary culture and thought from Penguin Books, a key educational and mind-broadening instrument in its heyday.

Highlights include a story by that Chekhov of the Welsh sitting-room, Kate Roberts, with her extraordinary sense for objects and places and her frequent demonstration of emotional absence or unexpressed feeli..READ MORE

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Re-imagining Wales: Contemporary Welsh Writing [Literary Review v44n2]

Curtis, Tony and Meredith, Christopher eds.

Since there is so little Welsh-language writing available in English we are unusually (for this series) including a book-style publication, a special issue of the American (New Jersey) Literary Review entirely dedicated to writers from Wales. Like this Babel Guide the collection ranges over both Welsh and English works by Welsh authors, comprising ten short stories or novel extracts, some reproductions of Iwan Bala’s art and much poetry.

The fifteen poets represented include Dannie Abse, a major name in his era. Peter Finch’s ‘Chew My Gum and Think of Rifles’ cited below is a wry and witty ..READ MORE

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Classic Welsh Short Stories

Jones, Gwyn and Elis, Islwyn Ffowc eds.

Classic Welsh Short Stories is a collection of twenty–five stories from the twentieth century and includes fifteen stories originally written in English and ten translated from Welsh. There is a striking vitality to these stories, which offer a good insight into Welsh culture and the breadth of its literature.

Traditionally the Welsh story is seen as a tale about the exploits of some colourful character living in an agricultural or mining community. In this vein Rhys Davies’ entertaining ‘Canute’ describes the events when a group of men leave a south Wales valley for London, off to see the England vs. Wales rugby international: ‘You had the impression that the place would be denuded of its entire male population, as in some archaic war. . .  In black mining valleys, on rustic heights, in market towns and calm villages, myriads of house doors opened during the course of the night and a man issued from an oblong of yellow light, a railway ticket replacing the old spear’. Davies has affectionately set up the men for s..READ MORE

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A White Afternoon

Stephens, Meic ed.

A White Afternoon, published in 1998, is a collection of thirty short stories whose vibrancy and range reflect a period in which the short story enjoyed a new vogue. Angharad Jones’ ‘Dear Mr Atlas’ is typical of some of the stories, in that a small event in a person’s life takes on a greater magnitude and significance. When Elen trips in front of a builder who has whistled at her as she walks to work, he rushes to see if she is hurt. This moment lends colour to an otherwise drab life, and causes Elen to question the way she feels about her boyfriend, Gronw. That evening she notices how Gronw, a scholar, has shadows under his eyes: ‘the kind caused by thousands and thousands of academic paragraphs’. In contrast, the builder — less remote and more virile than her partner — is not repelled by the ‘undignified’ spectre of her blood seeping from the cut on her knee through her nylon tights.

‘One Lettuce Does Not a Salad Make’ is similar to Jones’ story in that a small event, such as a man’s reaction to a salad, can be symbolic of more important ..READ MORE

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A White Afternoon

Stephens, Meic ed.

 (Additional review on this important collection)

The collection’s title story by Sonia Edwards is as intense and artistic as one would expect from this exceptional author, relating a girl’s view of her mother’s (second) wedding day, probably not such an unusual mixed-feelings sort of experience these days. Similarly ‘Linda’s Story’ by Aled Islwyn cleverly explores some less-travelled aspects of married life, in this case a woman discovering her husband is gay or bisexual. The focus is on the domestic again in ‘Mothers’ by Meleri Roberts, a short, sharp shock of a piece that ought to be further anthologised for its perfectly artful dive from the sentimental to the bleak. Aled Lewis Evans’ ‘Dean and Debs’ are a couple of happy Chavs living on ‘the Wern estate’. Dear old Debs is only eighteen and about to have her first child. Will Dean stick around? Read here to find out… Martin Davis’ ‘Water’ is a graphic, powerfully written story of civilians inside a civil war, perhaps the Yugoslav one but in any cas..READ MORE

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The Master of Pen y Bryn [Gŵr Pen y Bryn]

Davies, E. Tegla

Subtitled ‘A Story from the Period of the Tithe War’ (referring to a public campaign, with riotous interludes, in the late nineteenth century against enforced contributions to the Anglican clergy in Wales by its largely Nonconformist non-Anglican population) this is not, however, the dramatic account of rebellion and national struggle one might expect. Rather it is a morality tale centred on the lives of two men, John Williams ‘Master of Pen y Bryn’ and his adversary, Hughes, and seems to represent a shift from a worldview of rule-book Protestantism and chapel morality to a Romantic view of Natural Beauty and Love as inspiration for redemption and moral regeneration. As Marcus Aurelius put it well before the Christian age: ‘overcoming the obstacle to a task becomes the task’. The ‘task’ here is the overcoming of petty anger and vengefulness and the resultant improvement of the soul or character. But it is not the bleeding Jesus on the cross that inspires the morally improving protagonist Hughes but a vision of romantic and erotic bliss, a lovely scene of young love, the young love that Hughes himself largely missed out on when young.

Edward Tegla Davies (a Wesleyan minister and a pr..READ MORE

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The Master of Pen y Bryn [Gŵr Pen y Bryn]

Davies, E. Tegla

Subtitled ‘A Story from the Period of the Tithe War’ (referring to a public campaign, with riotous interludes, in the late nineteenth century against enforced contributions to the Anglican clergy in Wales by its largely Nonconformist non-Anglican population) this is not, however, the dramatic account of rebellion and national struggle one might expect. Rather it is a morality tale centred on the lives of two men, John Williams ‘Master of Pen y Bryn’ and his adversary, Hughes, and seems to represent a shift from a worldview of rule-book Protestantism and chapel morality to a Romantic view of Natural Beauty and Love as inspiration for redemption and moral regeneration. As Marcus Aurelius put it well before the Christian age: ‘overcoming the obstacle to a task becomes the task’. The ‘task’ here is the overcoming of petty anger and vengefulness and the resultant improvement of the soul or character. But it is not the bleeding Jesus on the cross that inspires the morally improving protagonist Hughes but a vision of romantic and erotic bliss, a lovely scene of young love, the young love that Hughes himself largely missed out on when young.

Edward Tegla Davies (a Wesleyan minister and a pr..READ MORE

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The Golden Road [I Hela Cnau]

Eames, Marion

Two recent events have revived Wales’ love–hate relationship with Merseyside. One was Liverpool City Council’s apology for the flooding of Tryweryn’s Cwm Celyn river valley and its community in 1965 for the sake of the city’s water supply. The second was Liverpool’s slightly less controversial proposal to stage the National Eisteddfod as part of its European City of Culture programme in 2007.

Marion Eames’ The Golden Road shows the roots of this symbiotic relationship in the 1860s, when north Walians escaped rural poverty to start a new life on Liverpool’s facing shore: Birkenhead. Lancashire mills created Merseyside’s wealth — mills fed by American cotton picked by slaves and shipped from its new docks; all this was threatened, however, by the American Civil War, despite some ship-owners continuing the trade with the Confederates using falsely-registered ships.


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The Secret Room [Y Stafell Ddirgel]

Eames, Marion

Laughter fills the first few pages of this novel: the laughter of the Dolgellau Hiring Fair of 1672, as the crowds celebrate their new-found freedom to enjoy themselves. Within a few hours the crowd is a frenzied mob, drowning an old crone in the river. The horror of their cruelty, the complaisance and acquiescence of his privileged peers, and his own impotence to resist sets the novel’s protagonist, Rowland Ellis, on a dangerous course of self-discovery as he questions what lies beneath the surface of his settled life. ‘Far better leave things as they are,’ the rector tells Rowland, but change is inevitable. This is the strength of The Secret Room: it wears its historical and local knowledge lightly, yet solidly enough for us to participate in the tension and emotion experienced by the characters, faced with painful dilemmas and religious persecution.

The interaction is centred on a gathering of Quakers in the small market town of Dolgellau, north Wal..READ MORE

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White Tree [Y Goeden Wen]

Edwards, Sonia

White Tree is the English translation of the Welsh-language text Y Goeden Wen, translated by the author herself, Sonia Edwards. This is a sophisticated, innovative work that came a close second in the coveted prose medal competition of the National Eisteddfod in 2002, of which the author is a previous winner. As is characteristic of prose works tailor-made for this competition, it is perhaps most aptly defined as a novella and could be read in a single sitting. Which is not to say that its effect is short-lived, for it is the kind of book that lingers long after turning the last page. Its brevity is a testament to the clarity and control of the writing, and it is a guaranteed light and sprightly read, even for the most reluctant.

The White Tree..READ MORE

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A White Veil for Tomorrow [Rhwng Noson Wen a Phlygain]

Edwards, Sonia

At eighty-three pages, this is a short but very rewarding book that employs poetic prose, where the minister’s house is ‘chapel-proud and sober’ and has a ‘beetle-black telephone by the front door’.

As to subject matter, Sonia Edwards plays with eroticism by taking it out of its accustomed and legitimate channels, and at the heart of the book are several tender but difficult loves; one couple in fact are brother and sister, notwithstanding that the relationship is not physically expressed.

The brother is also son to a father who has forgotten, through the curse of Alzheimer’s, all but the most babyish of things but somehow still has — in Edwards’ vision — the tragic knowledge of his lost knowledge. In the dysfunctional world of A White Veil for Tomorrow ..READ MORE

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Return to Lleior [Yn Ôl I Leior]

Elis, Islwyn Ffowc

The central if not always most convincing character of Return to Lleifior (which is the sequel to Shadow of the Sickle [Cysgod y Cryman] also reviewed here) is the bloody-minded Harri Vaughan, a figure who sums up the concerns of the 1930s generation in Wales. His response to many things is primarily ideological: the Communism of his youth is reduced to doctrinaire Socialism as he approaches his 30s, and his ‘punishment’ for this is to end up on his knees sobbing for Jesus in the book’s somewhat unlikely finale.

Despite the weight in the book of the cardboard-like figure of Harri, who is portrayed as a reformed Toff taken up with the cause of the working man, ..READ MORE

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Shadow of the Sickle [Cysgod y Cryman]

Elis, Islwyn Ffowc

This enormously popular novel first appeared in 1953 and heralded a new phase in Welsh-language fiction — a phase of novels featuring a young, confident, even rebellious generation. In 1999 it was voted the best-loved Welsh-language novel of the twentieth century.

It tells the story of Harri Vaughan, the son of a gentrified farmer in central Wales, who is a research student at Bangor and something of a heart–throb. He is engaged to be married to the rather dumb daughter of a well-to-do farmer, and it seems ‘a good match’ in the eyes of local people. At university, however, Harri is swept off his feet by fellow student Gwylan, a staunch member of the Communist Society, and he is converted to Marxism. This causes a painful rift between him and his family of pious Nonconformists. He declares his enmity towards the conservative values of his father, and brandishes a symbolic sickle above his head. Harri is not content just to preach this new gospel, but wants to live it out as well, so he refuses to live at Lleifior, the family home, and finds lodgings in the house of a counc..READ MORE

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Out of their Night [Chwalfa]

Hughes, T. Rowland

Anyone familiar with north Wales will know that it is famous for slate quarries. During the late nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth, the slate was exported all over the world, and the slate roofs provided by Wales are justly admired. But what was the human cost? True, the Penrhyn quarry in Bethesda provided jobs to hundreds, and contributed to the economy, but the quarrymen worked hard in difficult and dangerous conditions for a pittance while the quarry owners lived a life of luxury. Lord Penrhyn lived in Penrhyn

Castle, and there was an unbridgeable gap between him and the quarrymen. To add insult to injury, the workers were Welsh speaking and the masters Englishmen, the workers Nonconformist in religion whilst the masters were Anglicans, the workers Liberal in their political persuasion and the masters Conservatives. A myth (and not an altogether false one) has grown around the ..READ MORE

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William Jones [William Jones]

Hughes, T.Rowland

This novel was written in Welsh and is largely set in south Wales. A humorous work, it recounts the story of a north-Walian slate-splitter or quarryman who decides to escape a domestic situation quite devoid of bliss — his wife Liza is a caricature ‘bad wife’ who dishes up tinned food and spends his money hanging out in the cinema with Ronald Coleman, Gary Cooper et al.

Amidst the Punch-and-Judy of an awful marriage is a fascinating description of the small world of north Wales in the 1930s. Small world seems to translate as ‘small-minded’ as doughty William Jones explores the naughty world of south Wales, shown as having quite different mores. In fact the south seems gay and libertine t..READ MORE

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A Toy Epic [Y Tri Llais]

Humphreys, Emyr

Emyr Humphreys’ A Toy Epic, first published in 1958, is a classic work of twentieth-century Welsh literature, for which the author won the prestigious Hawthornden Prize. There are two versions of the novel: one in Welsh (Y Tri Llais) and one in English. In the novel we are presented with three main characters, Albie, Michael and Iorwerth, and the rest of the novel follows their journey through boyhood and adolescence with each boy taking up the story in turn. Through these boys, who grow up in north-east Wales during the 1930s, Humphreys explores the politics of national identity, language, class and religion. Albie is a victim of class and language conflict. Whilst his father desires to speak Welsh at home, and is thoroughly unashamed of being working class, his mother desperately wants Albie to make something of himself. Co..READ MORE

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Corner People

Jones, Harri Pritchard

Corner People is a collection of thirteen stories by this doctor, translator and Welsh-language novelist, short-story and script-writer. ‘Exit’ is the reminiscence of a (rather banal) theatrical career, ‘Venturing Forth’ the account of a schoolmistress who has dedicated herself to marking and her ‘tada’ (‘dad’) — a firm chapel man: ‘With tada I could idolise him, love him body and soul, without there being any lust involved’.

‘Matinee’ is clever and intriguing; an ageing actress is called to witness her experiences with a (deceased) great poet whose biography has been commissioned. She aims to have the pleasure of ‘writing’ a bit of personal and poetic history all to suit herself and this will be her greatest performance. In fact the poet was ‘a creature set apart’, definitely not one of the gang and his relationship with the actress was not so wonderful for her. This is a short but very clever essay on reminiscence versus reality (‘falsified memory syndrome’ anybody?) but intensely sympathetic – as is ‘Venturing Forth’ to i..READ MORE

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Tomos the Islandman [Tomos o Enlli]

Jones, Jennie

A beautifully made and beautifully written bilingual book with woodcuts of fisherfolk life by Kim Atkinson and a very funny introduction by John Rees Jones whose own family lived for generations on Ynys Enlli or Bardsey Island off the Llŷn peninsula of Wales.

It is the memoir of an old islander, Tomos Jones: ‘a small, gracious man with the salt of the sea in his voice’. The story is the story of so many places in Europe: the dissolution of a culturally homogenous community.


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The Plum Tree and Other Short Prose [Y Goeden Eirin]

Jones, John Gwilym

Reading these short stories by John Gwilym Jones when they were first published in 1946 must have produced a shock similar to that experienced by the first readers of James Joyce’s Dubliners. The settings, in a semi-rural, semi-industrial quarrying district in north-west Wales, would be familiar enough, whether from personal experience or from reading the pre-war stories of Kate Roberts. But the modernity of content and form caused considerable discomfort. Like the stories of Joyce (whose influence Jones acknowledged in an interview reproduced here) or Katherine Mansfield, these are not so much narratives of external events as studies of a psychological state or reaction to specific events or circumstances. In the story that provides the title, for example, identical twins, Wil and Sionyn, share as children the same experiences, thoughts and feelings to the extent that they seem to be a single person in two bodies, yet as adults their paths completely diverge. It is only years later that Sionyn realises that his fall out of the plum tree when they were growing up bro..READ MORE

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Triptych [Triptych]

Jones, R.Gerallt

Blow-by-blow terminal cancer narratives are strangely compelling. The subtitle of this novel, ‘A portrait, in three parts, of Everyman, 1977’, reminds us that death comes to all, and reinforces the uneasy conviction that we ghoulishly enjoy reading of someone else’s inevitable journey to the grave. In this instance, the descent seems more dramatic because forty-year-old John Bowen has devoted his life to physical activity. A former international rugby player turned college lecturer in physical education, with a nice little sideline as a radio and

television commentator, this classic macho Welshman is peculiarly unprepared for the bad news ineptly delivered by an embarrassed doctor. His first reaction is anger at his fate, and it is anger which seems to sustain him throughout his remaining months of life. His feelings are charted in this tripartite narrative, supposedly his diary, where we follow the progress of his determined but useless battle, from initial shock, to an attempt to live with the situation, to final decline and death in hospital.


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Martha, Jack and Shanco [Martha, Jac a Sianco]

Lewis, Caryl

This is a tight, close-up little drama with rural characters, including the slow Shanco who ‘keeps his terrier under his jumper at all times’. Their farmhouse is Graig-ddu (‘Black Rock’): ‘The orchard came right up behind the house, making it dark and damp; the wallpaper’s original light blue a distant memory, since by now it was blackened by smoke’. This is no rural idyll, but Lewis’ eye for detail gives us pleasure amidst the squalor and ‘unpleasantness’ (as those who romanticise rural existence might see it).

Her eye is an eye for humour too: ‘As she put the teapot on the table, Jack pulled off his hat and gave it to the pot to wear while it brewed the tea’.

Staccato chapters envision the repetitive, uncomfortable moments of these isolated farming siblings’ lives, frying bacon and potatoes, slaughtering turkeys or training sheepdogs. But there is a grand drama unfolding here about marriage and property as in the best Jane Austen.


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Monica [Monica]

Lewis, Saunders

This short novel was the first of only two which Saunders Lewis published, yet he is widely regarded as the doyen of modern Welsh-language writers, not primarily for the novels, but mainly on account of his many plays, poems and a vast output of literary criticism, journalism and political writings. Although his novels may seem like byways, they are nevertheless ground-breaking works, and Monica in particular is a milestone in the history of the Welsh-language novel.

When it was published in 1930, it received little acclaim, and was largely reviled by the critics — the main reason being that it dealt with a then taboo subject in Welsh Nonconformist circles, namely the eroticism of romantic love. Wales before the Methodist Revival of the eighteenth century had not been so shy of physical desire. Dafydd ap Gwilym in the fourteenth century had celebrated it, and even the eighteenth-century revivalis..READ MORE

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Big Grey Water [Y Dŵr Mawr Llwyd]

Llywelyn, Robin

A reviewer should not read too much from biography into a writer’s work but irresistibly for someone who visited it at an impressionable age (both physically and televisually through the cult TV series ‘The Prisoner’) the fact that Llywelyn is the manager of Portmeirion, an unusual Italianate fantasy-village constructed by an eccentric architect in mid-Wales seems to explain his comfort with the surreal in his work. In this collection of twelve stories (two of which have not been reviewed as only a partial advance copy was available before publication) things veer between comic and sinister. Llywelyn is seen as a near-revolutionary force in Welsh writing, and his novels, with elements of both fantasy and shock-tactics have caused a rumble in Wales and beyond. Two of these, Seren Wen ar Gefndir Gwyn and O’r Harbwr Gwag i’r Cefnfor Gwyn, have also been published in English as ..READ MORE

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From Empty Harbour to White Ocean [O’r Harbwr Gwag i’r Cefnfor Gwyn]

Llywelyn, Robin

Robin Llywelyn’s second novel speaks with a voice both homely and profoundly alien. The characters, whether at home or in exile, are detached from their roots and yet carry them with them, like it or not. Gregor Marini, a trainee architect with no prospects, is sacked from his job as wine waiter in a posh hotel so decides to leave his middle-class girlfriend, Alice, and take his chance as an illegal immigrant to the country across the sea. There, in a dangerous city dominated by a Kafkaesque bureaucracy, he meets a rag-bag of characters. Some with Welsh nicknames, others with names that would be at home anywhere in Europe, they include the sly beggar, Llygad Bwyd, a slipshod landlady and her sinister bully of a son, Adam Laban.

Armed with false papers, Gregor finds a job as assistant to the Du Traheus, a character filched from a medieval Welsh story. Now turned municipal librarian, he guards his subterranean kingdom of endless bookshelves where the cobwebs are thick enough to engulf a man. Gregor’s new boss is originally from the country across the border, a country whose traditional way of life is threatened by its aggressive neighbour. Ethnic cleansing and economic collapse have left only the..READ MORE

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White Star [Seren Wen ar Gefndir Gwyn]

Llywelyn, Robin

White Star is a political allegory set in the future. The Welsh title (which translates as ‘White Star on a White Background’) is an allusion to the flag — ironic  and apolitical — adopted by the embryonic state of Llawr Gwlad (‘Lowland’) as it emerges from a period of occupation and cultural humiliation.

In the book, the alien forces of the great Gwlad Alltud (‘Land of Exile’) see their supremacy challenged by an alliance of the lesser provinces. These include Tir Bach (‘Little Land’), Haf heb Haul (‘Sunless Summer’), Gaeaf Mawr (‘Great Winter’), names which reflect the geopolitical climate of the age.

Both the provinces and Robin Llywelyn’s novel are peopled with exotic and often diabolical characters. Tir Bach is ruled by the amorphous Llwch Dan Draed (‘Dust Under Foot’), a typically Llywelynesq..READ MORE

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Melog [Melog]

Morgan, Mihangel

A mysterious young foreigner, Melog, intrudes into the life of a retiring academic in a small place in the Welsh valleys. Using a moderately playful literary format (with many references to actual and imagined books from the Welsh and European past creating a puzzle-book pleasure) there is also an extended Sci-Fi metaphor for the relationship between England and Wales or between other unequal partnerships of coloniser and colonised. This metaphorical exploration is embodied by the Candide-like Melog who sees, finds and even creates wonder everywhere he goes.

Apart from his own eccentric appearance and behaviour, Melog’s Wales is  fairly everyday, albeit mainly populated by roughnecks, a predominately sub-proletarian world of people on the dole with a 1970s flavour. This is either Morgan’s jaundiced view of his country (or the valley towns where Melog is set) or satirical as in the clever chapter ‘Public Executio..READ MORE

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One Moonlit Night [Un Nos Ola Leuad]

Prichard, Caradog

One Moonlit Night doesn’t have a clear-cut, linear narrative, as it is based on seemingly jumbled-up memories which pour haphazardly onto its pages. Yet a strong framework is provided by the moonlit night of the title, as the protagonist is a grown-up man who has returned to his native village after a period of incarceration for murder. As he walks around the village one night various places evoke scenes from his childhood and adolescence, and gradually his story builds up. An aura of mysteriousness surrounds him: he is unnamed, fatherless, and obsessed with his mad mother who spent the last part of her life in an asylum. The main character himself seems deranged (and the title is suggestive of lunacy), so that we seem to be looking into a cracked mirror where the image is all awry.

Although the story is narrated by one character, the perspective changes from time to time, which is both unsettling and exciting. At times the style is an adolescent’s stream-of-consciousness, at others the voice of an adult narrator and yet again there are highly-charged, psalm-like, ..READ MORE

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The Awakening [Y Byw sy’n Cysgu]

Roberts, Kate

A woman’s world within the man’s world of the little quarry town of Aberentryd just after World War Two. We become witnesses to the exploding boil of a marriage break-up with its repercussions for all those involved.

Kate Roberts delivers us an X-ray plate of a household in a close-packed terrace, part of a small-scale, personalistic and familial world of So-and-So the teacher and Jones the lawyer. Although written from within the female character’s point of view, even resorting to diary pages to give us (‘the abandoned woman’) Lora Ffenig’s inner voice, somehow the male characters are more enjoyable. There’s Uncle Edward ‘wearing the same clothes he’d worn at the beginning of the century’, whose mockable retro country manners and opinions warn of a fundamental division between town and country, or Lora Ffenig’s brother-in-law Owen, whose tolerance and open-mindedness contrasts with the personalities of a group of rather rigid and dissatisfied female folk, and even Iolo the strayer who, one senses, will not find long-term joy with attractive husband-thief Mrs Amroth, ‘as hard as Spanish iron’.


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Feet in Chains [Traed Mewn Cyon]

Roberts, Kate

Feet in Chains by Kate Roberts is one of the most enduring Welsh-language novels of the twentieth century. In it, as in the entirety of her work, the author succeeds in capturing and committing to print the memory of a society destined to pass. Set in Roberts’ native Arfon, which was a practically monolingual Welsh-speaking community until after World War Two, Feet in Chains records some forty years of the daily struggle with penury of a young couple, Ifan and Jane Gruffydd. Theirs’ is the fight to rear a family on a modest quarry wage supplemented by subsistence farming. As with the other men-folk of the vicinity, Ifan’s days are punctuated by the ringing of the quarry bell, while wife Jane labours season in season out to bring light and joy to the homestead.

Education provides the key for the next generation to escape a ..READ MORE

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A Summer Day and Other Stories

Roberts, Kate

Kate Roberts was one of a very few women writers in Welsh to achieve prominence in the rather oppressive atmosphere of mid-twentieth century Wales, and this volume clearly demonstrates why she was able to make that breakthrough. Although the stories here were originally published in Welsh-language periodicals from 1925 to 1937, it was 1946 before this volume of beautifully-crafted translations brought them to the notice of a wider audience in Wales and outside. These are not proto-feminist texts, but they are written out of specifically female experience and no male Welsh writer of the time

understood or conveyed as Roberts does the hidden heroism and tragedy of working-class women’s existence in the quarry districts of north-west Wales.

These women show no self-pity, only endurance. Hemmed in by circumstances and narrow gender roles, Roberts’ characters manage to achieve small moments of pleasure through simple things — paying off pa..READ MORE

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Sun and Storm and Other Stories

Roberts, Kate

This little collection is mainly composed of rather engrossing stories about a young Welsh maid, Winni, the classic naïve country girl, written no doubt from Kate Roberts’ own rural background. Although Christmas puts in an appearance these are not sentimental tales: Winni’s violent drunken father — an exultantly bad character — actually mugs her on the street for drinking money.

Winni’s life centres on her affectionate relationships with her little half-brother and with her friends. Roberts shows us a hard-working put-upon life brightened only by the few hours spent with people she loves and by nature’s beauty.

In ‘Starting to Live’ we meet a young married woman, Deina Prys, in her first weeks in her new cottage with her husband, a quarryman like the author’s own people.

‘Emptiness’ is a story of Kate Rob..READ MORE

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Tea in the Heather [Te yn y Grug]

Roberts, Kate

Set against the backdrop of the slate-quarrying heartland of Gwynedd at the turn of the twentieth century, Tea in the Heather is Wyn Griffith’s accomplished translation of Te yn y Grug, one of Kate Roberts’ finest achievements. First published in 1959, it is a masterful work that can be considered as both novel and short-story collection, with an episodic structure charting the development of young Begw Gruffudd between the ages of four and nine years old. Begw is a young child coming to terms with the harsh realities of rural life in the Wales of her time and her brief confrontations with death, disappointment, loss and estrangement mark the beginnings of her adulthood with the gradual realisation ‘she herself would have to stand on her own two feet one day’: a rather frightening premise for a young child.


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Two Old Men and Other Stories

Roberts, Kate

This special illustrated edition of a handful of Kate Roberts’ stories was produced in honour of her ninetieth birthday. Kyffin Williams’ fourteen or so accompanying linocuts can be described as both warm and slate-like in their solidity and flatness. There is also a short laudatory introduction by John Gwilym Jones that breathes those most revered names of classic shortstorydom, Maupassant and Chekhov. He also reminds us of Roberts’ ‘intuitive recognition of human relationships’. Perhaps Kate Roberts is not quite as subtle and witty as The Big M or Even Bigger C but she sat closer to the ordinary mortal. Her stories are as soft, warm and delicately healing as Williams’ best images.

The title piece ‘Two Old Men’ seems simple and straightforward at first — but is it a morality tale, an aperçu of a writer’s life, or a vision of ageing and loneliness?


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The World of Kate Roberts: Selected Stories 1925–1981

Roberts, Kate

This is a definitive collection of Kate Roberts’ stories compiled shortly after her death in 1985. Rather than being the work of a major British publisher, proud to have this flag-bearer and innovator of Welsh literature on their list, it comes from Temple University Press in New Jersey who have a strong international and translated literature list. Copies both new and used are easy enough to find on the Internet but library copies are infrequent in the UK. This is an essential book for anyone with a real interest in Welsh-language fiction because here one can see the breadth and development of this important and genial author.

Her translator, Joseph P. Clancy, notes in his introduction that Kate Roberts is exercised by cultural and spiritual impoverishment as well as the economic kind. This makes her almost uncannily relevant in this period of dumbing down and global-disposable culture.

The volume starts with autobiographical excerpts, lamenting the impoverishment of the Welsh spoken in Denbigh wher..READ MORE

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Pestilence [Y Pla]

Roberts, Wiliam Owen

Wiliam Owen Roberts’ Pestilence is a work whose vision and depth has rarely been equalled in modern Welsh writing. A historical novel set in the mid-fourteenth century, it is a study in the instigation of change, the forces which cause change, and ways in which people and society react and adapt to change. The context for this study is, on the one hand, feudal Wales, and, on the other, a Europe prey to the Black Death, ruled by insouciant monarchs, and animated by apocalyptic religious zeal.

The reader is invited to explore the lives of Welsh serf and lord, sheriff, soldier and clergyman in the time after Edward II’s conquest of the country, and the demise of the indigenous Welsh princes and their authority.

The context is of disenfranchisement and a polit..READ MORE

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A Taste of Apples [Ienctid yw ‘Mhechod]

Rowlands, John

The scandal of a passionate affair between a married minister of religion and an attractive young woman from his congregation is still a favourite with newspapers, but in chapel-going Wales in 1965 it was nothing short of dynamite. In this short novel Emrys, trapped in his loveless marriage with the frigid Gwen, becomes sexually obsessed with Elsa, to the extent that he begins to question his faith and the purpose of his ministry. At the same time he manages to convince himself that what he feels for her is not simply lust but real love and that he somehow has God’s approval for his behaviour. Pastoral visits to Elsa’s bedridden mother provide opportunities for the lovers, demonstrating how far his relationship with her has taken him from the straight and narrow: the scene where they make love on the parlour floor while Elsa’s mother lies dying upstairs retains its power to shock even today. The old woman’s death that night brings Elsa to a sharp realisation of her situation and, poignantly, of the wrong she is doing to Emrys’ wife. Through Elsa’s brave efforts, she and Gwen become reconciled whilst Emrys collapses into a breakdown.

With hindsight, we can see that traditional Welsh soci..READ MORE

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Autobiographies [Neb]

Thomas, R.S.

[This autobiographical work does not fit precisely the Babel Guide scheme but is included for the importance of the writer. RK]

Asked to name two great Welsh poets of the twentieth century many people would mention Dylan Thomas and R.S. Thomas. As it happens both were born within a year of one another: Dylan in 1914 in Swansea and Ronald Stewart in 1913 in Cardiff. When Dylan Thomas died notoriously in Manhattan of an ‘insult to the brain’ in 1953, this was still three years before R.S. published his acclaimed first major collection, Song at the Year’s Turning (1955). It was John Betjeman, in a generous introduction to this work, who said that R.S.  Thomas’ poetry would outlive his own. Whethe..READ MORE

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The Old Farmhouse [Hen Dŷ Ffarm]

Williams, D.J.

Here is a seemingly simple stream of reminiscences of rural life in north Carmarthen in the late nineteenth century: lyrical evocations of a lad’s first six years on the family farm. The six-year-old’s eyes record and recreate a world and a way of life but the adult narrator simultaneously re-enacts the loss of it. We become aware of the disjunction between an ‘all one long today, dateless, endless and carefree’ and ‘the day we left Penrhiw [the family farm, Ed.] at the beginning of October 1891’, made all the more poignant because the narrative’s past, present and future is already lost for the twenty-first-century reader.

D.J. Williams’ easy and intimate storyteller’s style recreates what he sees as the lost values of belonging and community in a rural idyll overtaken by industrialisation’s disconnection and dislocation. Rather than being a homily, The Old Farmhouse is a rooted, earthy celebration. The narrative is full of naming sequen..READ MORE

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There Was a Young Man from Cardiff

Abse, Dannie

Abse’s book is an unusual mixture of short stories and diaristic pieces along with a few examples of his poetry, the form of writing he is best known for. As the book largely has a family focus we inevitably meet some larger-than-life members of a Welsh–Jewish family, like Uncle Eddie the dodgy entrepreneur (‘count your teeth. . . after you’ve seen Eddie’) as well as more ordinary family members in their larger-than-life moments.

The frequent humorous passages of There Was a Young Man from Cardiff (which follows on from a related work Ash on a Young Man’s Sleeve) are often shaded by Chekhovian darkness as menace and mystery slide out of the ordinary like the mist rising from the sea at Abse’s beloved Ogmo..READ MORE

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The Hiding Place

Azzopardi, Trezza

Set in the old Cardiff docklands of Tiger Bay, Trezza Azzopardi’s Booker shortlisted novel The Hiding Place is the story of Maltese immigrant Frank Gauci, his Welsh wife Mary, and their six daughters: Celesta, Marina, Rose, Fran, Luca, and Dolores. Through the eyes of the youngest daughter, Dolores or Dol, a vivid picture of Cardiff’s seedy 1960s underworld is painted: its vibrant immigrant community of gangsters, gaming rooms and betting shops, cafés, clubs and back-to-back terraces. But Azzopardi’s main focus is the troubled family life of the Gaucis themselves, the harrowing memories of abuse, deprivation and loss that, even thirty years on, refuse to fade for Dolores and are brought sharply into relief when, after three decades of absence, she returns to Cardiff on the news of her mother’s death. Confronted once more with her troubled past, Dolores finds herself locked in a struggle with both the willed amnesia of her sisters and her own uncertain memories — not to mention the literal erasure of place by Cardiff’s dockland developers — to salvage from this past something meaningful for the future. To what extent she succeeds in this is ..READ MORE

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Barnie, John

John Barnie is a polymath, seemingly rather good at everything. Not only is he editor of the important Welsh cultural magazine Planet, he is also a poet, essayist (particularly on politics and the environment) and blues musician, and in his latest work he brings these various talents together for the first time. Ice is a novel in verse — but don’t let that put you off. Thankfully, it lacks those qualities we tend to associate with ‘traditional’ poetry: it is not flowery or pretentious; it is not difficult for the sake of it; it doesn’t rhyme. It is, instead, surprisingly readable and extremely effective, conveying both a sense of place and the hopes and fears of the main characters with a richness and economy impossible to achieve through conventional prose. And what is there here of Barnie’s blues-playing side? Far from this being the lamentations of a broke drifter whose wife leaves him and takes the ..READ MORE

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A Bloody Good Friday

Barry, Desmond

1977. The Queen’s silver jubilee; skinheads; punk; high unemployment; civil and industrial unrest; the year of the four-month-long bread strike in south Wales. Storm clouds are gathering above Merthyr, a (soon to be former) mining town already in sharp decline. Against this backdrop, Davey Daunt, known in the pre-politically correct environment of the 1970s Welsh valleys as ‘Spazzy’ on account of a leg withered by polio, recounts the intertwined stories of a number of dodgy local characters as their paths cross, re-cross and finally badly entangle in the late hours of one fateful and extremely bloody Good Friday.

Macky, Davey’s best mate, released from prison just that morning, is out, along with fellow hard cases Morgan and Gerry, to paint the town red. Blood red. Bunyan, Davey’s childhood abuser, heads towards the high street curryhouse in a drunken stupor. In the ghetto that is the notorious Gurnos housing estate, Gripper, the leader of a gang of skinheads known as the Shop Boys, is arrested and his second-in-command, keen to prove his yobbish credentials, steps in with a rallying cry of anarchy and recreational violence. He leads the delinquent mob on a rampage down to the town, leavi..READ MORE

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So Long, Hector Bebb

Berry, Ron

Ron Berry’s vivid, often brutal novel tells the story of a fictional British Champion boxer, Hector Bebb, whose life is unravelled by violence. A snapshot of 1960s Cymmer in south Wales (complete with dialects) where the people are hard-working, hard-drinking, and hard-fighting, the novel traces the effects of violence and savagery — that which is legitimised by war and that by the boxing ring, as well as that which is not tolerated at all in civilised society.

We join Hector in training for his comeback bout, following a year-long suspension for biting an opponent. His story is told through a variety of perspectives — as well as Hector’s voice, there are thirteen other narrators including his wife, his trainer, his manager and other amateur boxers, past and present. Woven into the story of his preparations therefore are memories of how Hector started to box, accounts of fights through the years, and an exploration of the relationships of those connected to Hector and the other members of the White Hart Boxing club.


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Glass Shot

Bush, Duncan

Glass Shot is the unalloyed and unrelieved portrait of a sociopath, a man who, while apparently conforming to social norms in his lifestyle and appearance, lacks the crucial inner behavioural regulator of empathy for others.

As Bush drags us into the mind of this self-centred and ignorant man whose

family ties and social pride have been severed by marriage breakdown — his wife, much to his disgust, has left him for a teacher, the better to indulge middle-class cottagey-décor and Volvo-driving aspirations — we begin to feel bullied by this angry and threatening pub-bore type. His chronic anxiety and existential misery fester in the bleak universe constituted by the tyre-fitters’ where he works, his porno consumption, sex fantasies, ideas of revenge and gambling activities. His fantasy life in fact folds in and out of his consci..READ MORE

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Burke, Sean

Sean Burke’s striking debut novel is set in Cardiff’s notorious Butetown district in 1989, prior to the massive redevelopment which transformed that part of the Welsh capital. An urban thriller in the tradition of George Pelecanos and James Lee Burke, Deadwater begins with the gruesome murder of prostitute Christina Villers. Pharmacist and alcoholic Jack Farissey wakes the next morning, covered in blood and with no memory of the previous night. What follows is an odyssey into an anarchic world of pool halls, seedy pubs and rundown cafés, a blighted place of poverty, drug abuse, prostitution and gang violence.

Jack Farissey is complex, morally ambiguous and contradictory: at once negligent and protective, selfish and compassionate, he provides handouts of medicine to needy locals, recreationally consumes some of his stock himself ..READ MORE

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The Land as Viewed from the Sea

Collins, Richard

The Land as Viewed from the Sea is Richard Collins’ remarkable debut novel. It is an unconventional love story that pushes the limits of language and form to capture the complexity of memory and loss. Its prologue sets the background for the whole novel, invoking an expanse of grey-green sea constantly in flux. The waves journey onwards with previously felt forces, present momentum and the promise of future encounters. From this seemingly limitless fluidity the narrative shifts to an interior landscape to focus on a man and a woman arguing.

This stylised opening sequence could not be more in contrast to the earthy reality of rural life with which the story begins. Two men work companionably in the fields, one after an absence of some years. The latter, John, the ostensible ‘author’, is invigorated by the effect the natural environment has upon his senses; his awareness of physical reality has been dulled by his residence in the city and some of the novel’s most vivid and lyrical passages stem from his renewed receptivity to nature.


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The Element of Water

Davies, Stevie

The twin narratives of The Element of Water take place in 1945 and 1958. Following Hitler’s suicide in the last days of World War Two in Europe, Admiral Dönitz is pronounced head of state, and establishes the headquarters of the shattered Reich at Ruhleben naval camp on Lake Plön. As the Allies approach, Dönitz’s remaining forces flee, throwing their medals and weapons into the lake’s dark waters. Thirteen years later, the building has become a British forces boarding school (which, we are told in a foreword, the author herself attended). Michael Quantz, a former Nazi intelligence officer based at Ruhleben during Dönitz’s time, and his adult son Wolfi are now music teachers at the British school. Both men are haunted — Wolfi by the death of his mother during an allied air raid, his father by the atrocities he witnessed during the war, particularly those perpetrated by his childhood friend Paul Dahl: ‘From a seraphic Lutheran chorister, Paul had ripened to the purest filth’. Wolfi, a shy,  awkward young man, struggles with the burgeoning contempt he and his peers have for the complicity of his fath..READ MORE

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My People

Evans, Caradoc

Hailed as the father of ‘Anglo-Welsh’ literature, Caradoc Evans rose to notoriety with this controversial first collection, My People. First published in 1915, the fifteen stories are all set in the fictional village of Manteg and are also unified by recurring themes and characters. The stories depict a rural, Welsh-speaking and religiously Nonconformist community peopled by half-wits, social misfits, lecherous misogynists and oppressive Methodist ministers, all of whom share an obsessive and hollow materialism. Their motto is ‘keep your purse full and the strings tight, and nothing will fail you’.

Each story is set within the dominant institution of the place, Capel Sion (‘Zion Chapel’), ruled with self-interest and sham respectability by the chapel


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Griffiths, Niall

Grits was Liverpool-born Niall Griffiths’ first novel and establishes the fictional world in which all his novels to date — Sheepshagger, Kelly and Victor, Stump and Wreckage — have been located. When first published, this tale of 1990s drug culture and social decay in a Welsh seaside resort (Grif..READ MORE

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The Colour of a Dog Running Away

Gwyn, Richard

1990s Barcelona, a surreal and postmodern landscape peopled by rooftop raiders, English teachers, artists and fire-eaters. A city that is both menacing and inspirational. The majority of the narrative takes place in the atmospheric Gothic quarter with its narrow alleyways, medieval churches, hidden squares and shady bars, the latter frequented with zealous regularity by the improbably named Rhys Morgan Aurelio Lucas and his displaced friends.

Lucas is a thirty-three-year old translator and aspiring musician whose story begins with his witnessing a mugging one May evening. The next day a mysterious postcard arrives leading him to the beautiful Barcelonesa, Nuria, with whom he begins an intensely passionate affair.

Nuria seems to provide Lucas with stability and meaning in a world of fleeting attachments and constant movement. But nothing is as it seems in this city where the ‘abiding attraction lies in its relentless powers of reinvention, a ruthless creativity that rubs off on people after the brief..READ MORE

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The Tower

Hughes, Tristan

Place has been defined in one contemporary version as ‘space to which meaning has been ascribed’, and it is the meanings that we apply to land and space that Hughes considers in The Tower. The book is a collection of seven beautifully written and interwoven short stories that look at the same ‘small patch of land’ on Ynys Môn (the Isle of Anglesey). As well as exploring how this specific place influences — and indeed is influenced by — a cast of diverse characters,

Hughes also considers wider issues of place and the importance of the notions of ‘here’, ‘somewhere’ and ‘nowhere’. Some characters seem stranded on the
ynys, unsure of ho..READ MORE

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Outside the House of Baal

Humphreys, Emyr

A Man’s Estate

Outside the House of Baal, a book from the mid-1960s, is considered one of the most canonical of modern Welsh novels. It tackles thorny problems of Welsh identity in the twentieth century and beyond, including the effects of the dissolution of the ‘niche civilisation’ of Welsh-speaking Nonconformism, seen for example in the dialogue between the book’s main protagonist, philosophically troubled preacher J.T. Miles, and his son Ronnie who is, tellingly, a sociologist rather than a man of the cloth.

To his father’s chagrin Ronnie speaks of a ‘dead-wood’ tradition while a new pub, the so-called (by J.T.) ‘House of Baal’ now abuts onto his garden. The preacher understands temperance as something firmly Welsh, in contradistinction to th..READ MORE

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A Small Country

James, Siân

This is the story of a Welsh farming family in the process of dissolution, both sentimentally and socially, in the period just before World War One. While the setting is idyllic enough — ‘it was a still, silvery morning, doves murmuring from the huge chestnut trees outside the windows’ — this large house with its small staff of loyal retainers is struck with great unhappiness as the head of the family, Josi, runs off with a young(ish) female teacher he encounters by chance one day.

There are echoes of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (a work whose importance has been traduced by its notoriety) in the foregrounding of sexual passion in the lives of the main protagonists and it is set in a similar period.

There are echoes too in the figure of t..READ MORE

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Gwalia in Khasia

Jenkins, Nigel

The Khasia tribe live in an isolated part of north-east India, a mountainous land of virgin forests in the foothold of the Jaintia hills in Meghalay. On the one hand they form a progressive society in which women are treated with reverence, on the other the society is rather less enlightened in its practice of ritual sacrifice. The rich landscape is revered by its people who live in harmony with nature. Language is central too, revealing its proximity to the environment in its onomatopoeic emphasis: ‘miaw’ for cat and ‘slap’ for the heavy tropical rains that fall there. Their culture carries a weight of ancestral mythology and maintains its ancient oral tradition and this in fact is central to this beautifully crafted account of a meeting of two peoples bound by history and ‘intervention’.

Combining both travelogue and historical account within a narrative structure, Gwalia in Khasia is the fascinating story of Wales’ only overseas Mission, all..READ MORE

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The Island of Apples

Jones, Glyn

Glyn Jones, friend and contemporary of Dylan Thomas, was one of the most influential figures in the formative years of Welsh writing in English. The Island of Apples, perhaps his most important novel, is an elegy of youth and testament to a vanished community, the once vibrant industrial centre of Merthyr Tydfil. The fictional valley town of Ystrad functions as homage to the lively cultural and social milieu of the author’s boyhood. In common with most English-language writers in Wales during this period, Jones explores the relationship between the industrial south and the rural west of his family origins.

Dewi Davies is a scholarship boy whose life is changed forever when a mysterious youth is saved from drowning by his father. Karl, the ‘body’ in the river, becomes the focus of adolescent hero-worship for the young protagonist, dazzled to the point of obsession by the exotic and charismatic older boy of undisclosed Central European origin. Karl provi..READ MORE

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Welsh Boys Too!

Jones, John Sam

In 1924 E.Prosser Rhys won the crown at the National Eisteddfod for his hugely controversial ode Atgof (‘Memory’) which dealt with the sexual awakening of a young gay man. It scandalised this invariably conservative institution and though John Sam Jones writes in English, his stories are set in the Welsh-language heartland formed by the same religious Nonconformity and cultural politics depicted by Rhys seventy years ago.

John Sam Jones’ prize-winning first collection was inspired by his own experiences as a gay youth in the traditionally Welsh-speaking rural hinterland of a small coastal town.

Jones is often preoccupied with the individual’s sense of belonging and the need to negotiate a plac..READ MORE

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Mr Vogel

Jones, Lloyd

This novel in three distinct sections — the symbolism of which only becomes clear at the end — is itself, as the author describes the land of Wales, a bag of tricks. Once opened it fascinates with its rush of styles, characters, temporal shifts and mythical proportions. A book with a dark secret but ultimately hopeful in spirit, in it we make a breathtaking journey that begins with the discovery of a manuscript.

With a flourish, we are thrust into an anachronistic fairytale world set in and around the infamous Blue Angel pub with narration supplied by its quirky bartender. A motley crew of characters frequent the place, including explorers like George Borrow and Thomas Pennant. Humboldt’s parrot is also in residence and a Welsh Don Quixote drops by regularly. The narrative explodes outwards to eventually encapsulate Welsh history in a cleverly exploited world of make-believe, set in a handy time-warp that allows past and present to converge.

This is the ‘second home’ of Mr Vogel — a solitar..READ MORE

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Soldiers and Innocents

Jones, Russell Celyn

During the mid-1980s, a soldier of an elite airborne regiment goes absent without leave from active service in Northern Ireland after witnessing the death of a woman in labour, and the subsequent suicide of her mother. The stillborn child, whose image concludes the novel’s prologue, is the catalyst that forces Captain Evan Price to question the morality of the army and the state that governs it. He can no longer accept the conditioning imposed by military training that strips men of their personal and communal responsibilities. It is this realisation that compels him to return to his roots and take greater responsibility as the father of a young son.

The novel follows the journey of a young man driven to comprehend his place in the world. The army denies him autonomy and presents itself as an all-encompassing family, a completely self-contained community. Evan comes to view these bonds as essentially malevolent, based on violence and subjugation without regard for the sanctity of life, ‘a system that generated evil as a way of sustaining itself’.


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Mr Schnitzel

Knight, Stephen

Winner of the Arts Council of Wales ‘Book of the Year Award’ in 2001, Mr Schnitzel evades categorisation: it’s a novel, a book of fables, a memoir, even a travelogue. Despite this ambiguous and sometimes fragmentary format, it has an impressive coherence and gravitas.

Night after night, while Stefan and his family are visiting his mother’s aunt in Austria, his father (the eponymous Mr Schnitzel — ‘an honorary title’ bestowed on account of his fondness for that particular dish) tells him fairytales about the Austrian Navy: ‘Stories for a five-year-old unsettled by sleeping in a strange bed in a strange country’. Among the characters Stefan is introduced to are Elfrieda the heartbroken pirate, bent on revenging her husband’s murder; compulsive potholer Thomas von Gammon and his doomed exploration of Europe’s subterranean canals; and Count Otto von Otto, First Admiral of the Austrian Fleet and ‘an excellent swimmer’, dispatched to sc..READ MORE

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Two in a Boat: A Marital Voyage

Lewis, Gwyneth

Gwyneth Lewis is an acclaimed poet, one of the twenty listed in the 2004 New Generation Poets*. She is arguably Wales’ best bilingual poet, author of one of the biggest poems in the world**, the enormous symbol of Wales’ new cultural and political autonomy in Cardiff Bay’s docklands. Like all good poets she seeks out new territories of the mind exploring, like her astronaut cousin***, new worlds and means of navigation. Two in a Boat is Lewis’ lyrical prose account of a life-changing venture on a beautiful old ‘Nicholson 35’ yacht, the Jameelah.

Hooked on C.S. Forester’s ‘Hornblower’ books (historical novels about the British Royal Navy) an..READ MORE

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Meredith, Christopher

One of the characters in Christopher Meredith’s debut novel, Shifts (1988), was an amateur historian whose investigations into the industrial origins of his Valleys town lead him towards a partial reclamation of a Welsh-language culture and identity lost to the present. Meredith’s second full-length fiction, Griffri (1991), might similarly be seen as an attempt to reclaim the Welshness of this same south-eastern corner of Wales, taking the reader back to a period, the twelfth century, when the region (Meredith’s own) stood at the vanguard of Welsh resistance to Anglo-Norman invaders. In a vivid first-person narrative,

this powerfully imagined and met..READ MORE

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Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere

Morris, Jan

The author of more than forty books, including studies of Venice, Oxford, Manhattan, Sydney and Hong Kong, Jan Morris states in her Prologue to Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere that this is to be her last publication. Fitting, then, that this portrait of a city which has ‘curiously haunted’ her since she first visited it as a soldier at the end of World War Two (an explanatory note tells readers that the author ‘completed a change of sexual role in 1972’), should also be, in many ways, her most personal book. It is as much a reflection on the search for her own identity as on Trieste itself. ‘For years,’ she writes, ‘I felt myself an exile from normality’. The book is also, to a large extent, a reiteration of themes — nationalism, empire and indeed exile — which have preoccupied Morris since her first book was published in 1956.

‘The average traveller,’ according to ..READ MORE

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Rubens, Bernice

My maternal grandfather, like one of Bernice Rubens’ grandfathers, grew up in the Tsar’s Russia and passed on three things from his life there: a gleaming brass samovar — the sine qua non of Russic domestic pride; my mother’s frankly rather broken Yiddish, faint echo of a thousand years of Jewish Europe and one single, short but deafening item from the word-horde of the mighty Russian language: pogrom.

If anyone doesn’t quite know what a pogrom was, then see Rubens’ evocation here — description would be too bland a term — on pages 111 to 123.


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The Dust Diaries

Sheers, Owen

The Dust Diaries is the ambitious and accomplished first novel of poet Owen Sheers. It is a multi-faceted work on the life of the Reverend Arthur Shearly Cripps — at once a novel, a biography, a memoir, a travelogue, an account of social history, war and imperialism and a love story. Sheers describes Dust Diaries as ‘the story of Arthur Cripps’ life reflected through my imagination’ but it is based on extensive research into the life and surroundings of this socially aware missionary to the Shona people of Zimbabwe.

The book is constructed from intricately layered narratives — the novel spans the twentieth century as author Owen Sheers’ experiences of contemporary Zimbabwe are interspersed with accounts of Cripps’ last days, memories of his time in Africa as well as of the life he left behind in Britain. Cripps’ ..READ MORE

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Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog

Thomas, Dylan

Wales’ most famous literary export is in delightful form with this collection of short stories first published in 1940. Like Joyce’s masterpiece Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which the title comically echoes, this collection is also

strongly autobiographical. It traces the early influences of people and places on Thomas’ boyhood, adolescence and early manhood, with most of the stories told in the first person, adding to their immediacy.

The collection moves, almost chronologically, from pre-adolescent play and comedic schoolboy experiences through to a more self-conscious adolescence with its awareness of growing sexual and creative forces. The first two stories, ‘The Peaches’ and ..READ MORE

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In and Out of the Goldsh Bowl

Trezise, Rachel

In and Out of the Goldfish Bowl is a vision of the Rhondda Valley in the 1990s, as witnessed and experienced by a teenage girl, Rebecca Trigianni. An account of life in one of the most deprived communities of Western Europe, where the mines have closed, but life remains as dark as the pits and the humour as black as the coal. A place where marginally employed adults drink and fight until they pass out, and where their children look for escape in alcohol, class B drugs, crime and underage sex.

The novel is a confessional memoir of youth, but Rebecca’s memories of family life serve as a metaphor for the experience of south Wales’ post-industrial communities. Among the episodes of a childhood, Trezise weaves sociological facts of the period, recounting how in 1985 in the aftermath of the Miners’ Strike, unemployment in the Rhondda Valley stood as high as sixty-five percent; for her family however, this was a good time as both her mother and stepfather remained employed. Rebecca’s contented home life i..READ MORE

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Sugar and Slate

Williams, Charlotte

Sugar and Slate contains many valuable lessons within its pages — and one of them is to be wary of labels. Labels like ‘black’, ‘white’, ‘British’, ‘Welsh’, ‘West Indian’, ‘African’, ‘immigrant’. Even such apparently indisputable, ‘factual’ labels as these are shown to be politically charged, loaded with assumptions and full of contradictions. Then there are other labels, widely used in the recent past but now seen as offensive: terms like ‘coloured’ and ‘half-caste’, words all too familiar to Charlotte Williams when she was growing up in Llandudno, a faded Victorian seaside resort on the north Wales coast. And then, of course, there are yet harsher labels… Though rarely the victim of such highly unpleasant taunts (the Llandudno of the 1950s and 1960s was, after all, a most polite and genteel town), Williams spent her formative years struggling to escape the labels society had burdened her with and, more insidiously, inculcated with the prevailing racist mentality, the labels she had given herself. One of five daughters of a black father from Guyana and a white ‘Cymraes’ (Welsh-speaking Welshwoman), perhaps the acceptable term to describe Williams nowadays would be ‘mixed-race’. Part memoir, part travelogue, part ..READ MORE

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Prince of Wales

Williams, John

The crime thriller, immensely popular as a genre, is not everybody’s cup of tea (or should that be ‘mug of java’). Prince of Wales, one of a series by Cardiff-based journalist John Williams, was published both separately and in a cheap omnibus edition alongside two similar works under the title The Cardiff Trilogy. It has, as well as the hard-bitten one-dimensional types that constitute a crime writer’s vision of the criminal world, an interesting portrayal of the interlocking elites of the Welsh capital. Williams’ Cardiff has, in his dark, cynical vision, ‘micro celebs of the Welsh media’, local authority and Welsh Assembly fixers, gangland henchmen and journalists all mix ’n matching in dire schemes for mutual enrichment.


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Border Country

Williams, Raymond

Raymond Williams is a writer better known for his work in literary and cultural studies than his fiction, but his often overlooked novels are nonetheless important and interesting. Border Country, Williams’ first novel and part of a border trilogy, is the story of the experiences of Matthew Price, a London-based lecturer, on his return to his family home in Glynmawr in the Welsh Marches. His visit is prompted by his father’s poor health, and his return home causes both characters to (re)consider aspects of their lives and their relationship. Their exploration of their shared memories — especially those of the 1926 General Strike — reveals both personal histories and the social history of mid-twentieth century Wales.

Borders are a central motif of this novel — it was completed at the end of the 1950s, a time when the boundaries between literary and cultural theory were becoming more permeable. ..READ MORE

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